By almost all accounts, the greatest sin of the generation of Israelites that left Egypt was the creation of the Golden Calf.
Moses was absconded somewhere in the sky together with God, receiving the Torah for us. The masses and rabble, frightened perhaps by Moses’ delayed return, get anxious. They press his brother, Aharon, the High Priest, to create an idol for them to worship. After collecting all their gold, Aharon puts it together in the fire, and walla! – out comes the Golden Calf.
All of this occurred a mere forty days after the Jews heard the Ten Commandments from the Voice of God Himself. In those selfsame commandments, he states very explicitly: Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make any idols. So it would seem to be the height of rebellion, and outright ‘chutzpah’, to build this idol at the foot of Mt. Sinai, as close as one could physically get to God at that moment in time.
Aharon, in a delaying tactic, after having made the Calf, announces that there will be a general celebration the next day.
Moses finally descends when the party is in full swing, smashes the newly minted Tablets of The Law, destroys the Calf, has the Levite tribe kill the worst offenders and extensively asks God for mercy (busy day).
We are told that if it weren’t for the intervention of Moses, God would have wiped out the fledgling Jewish nation and started anew with Moses as the progenitor of a new Chosen People.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno examines these passages in depth and makes a startling statement: Making the Golden Calf was horrible – but it was the festival surrounding it that really incensed God.
Bad enough to sin and show disloyalty to God. But to rejoice and take pleasure in it, to literally dance around the cause of God’s wrath – that’s really going overboard.
The sages say that every calamity, every punishment, even every minor mishap that happens to every Jew, since that moment until this very day, has a component of punishment from that event.
By the same token, every act of loyalty to God, by every one of us, no matter how small, surely absolves us of some of the damage our ancestors committed.
May we always merit doing acts of loyalty to God, and to know at what events and what occasions to celebrate.
To my grandfather, Yechiel (Yakov) Spitz, z”l, whose Yartzheit was this week. He was a loyal and humble servant of God, and a model for his descendents.
God commands the Children of Israel to build a Sanctuary for Him. He goes into excruciating detail as to the entire minutia of the construction, the sacrifices and the priestly service. In the midst of the divine shopping list, He states that He will dwell amongst us and be for us a God (Exodus 29:45).
The statement seems both obvious and redundant.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the extraneous phrase and offers a theologically important opinion:
“And I will be their God: To direct their affairs without an intermediary.”
Sforno is promoting the concept that divine plans and orders are placed upon mankind via a host of angelic middlemen. However, when it comes to the Children of Israel, God takes a personal and direct role. We get His full and undivided attention for good or ill, as it were.
Other peoples and nations suffer through the celestial bureaucratic machinery that has its own rules, regulations and patterns of nature. The Jewish people on the other hand have the ear of the head-honcho himself, who can quickly and easily bypass his own henchmen and intervene, sometimes dramatically, in the lives of His people.
“And they will not need fear the heavenly signs, for they will be more honored before Me than the heavens whose movement is directed through the angels.”
Sforno seems to be implying, that the Children of Israel are not only immune or protected from the effects of the “natural” world as directed by his ethereal minions, but in a sense, are even above them.
He ends his comment with the following powerful statement:
“And as a result of all this their eternity is ensured.”
It is not without reason that the Children of Israel have been named by some, the Eternal People. It seems that by being so closely connected and identifying with the Eternal One, by fulfilling our mission as individuals and as a nation, we also join the institution of Eternity.
May we make our homes places where He would be comfortable hanging out, and eternally merit feeling His proximity.
To Isaac Asimov. One of my favorite authors and one of the greatest science fiction writers ever. Though he was a self-avowed atheist/humanist, I believe this Russian-born, Brooklyn-raised, Columbia-educated Jew was an ‘ehrlech yid’ at heart. When writing the word “Eternity” in capital letters, I couldn’t help thinking of one of his great books: “The End of Eternity”.
After previously denouncing and prohibiting in multiple instances, on pain of death, creation of statues, portrayals of the human form, or anything even remotely resembling idols, God throws an unusual command.
In the building of the sanctuary, in the Holy of Holies, on the very top of the Ark of the Covenant, where the Tablets of the Law are devotedly concealed, God tells us to place, not one, but two human figures.
These two Cherubim, as they are called, have the form of young children with wings on their back.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders as to the seemingly contradictory declaration, by allowing one of the most abhorrent issues in Judaism, in the heart of the most sacred spot of Jewish ritual service.
Sforno claims that it is nothing less than a powerful and overt message. These Cherubim are representations of what today we more commonly refer to as Angels: heavenly ethereal beings that directly fulfill the will of God on earth. In rare occasions they present themselves and allow themselves to be seen by human beings. At times they may appear as unassuming humans, unrecognized in their mission. Most of the time, however, it seems they are invisible to the human eye.
So why are there angels on top of the Ark, and why specifically the winged variety?
I’ll paraphrase from Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz’s notes (the Sforno translator), who draws from Maimonides’ Guide to the Perplexed (I:49 and I:54):
The act of flying represents the ability to soar to heights as well as swiftness of movement, both of which require wings. Humans also can aspire to develop spiritual and intellectual potential so as to soar to greater heights of apprehension and understanding of God.
This can only be realized by examining God’s ways, as we see from Moses. One can only know Him, through His ways, which is through his 13 attributes, which can only be gained through the Torah. That is why the Cherubim are not only on the cover, but are gazing at the Ark cover – the source of truth and wisdom – the Torah.
Sforno believes that the Cherubim are an implicit message. That at the heart of the Jewish religion is a belief and a demand that we can and must elevate ourselves. That elevation is accomplished through God’s Law. If we keep our eye on the truth – we can soar like the very angels themselves.
To my sister and brother-in-law, Ilana and Daniel Epstein, on their 13th Anniversary. Besides the 13 Attributes of God and Bar-Mitzvah, 13 are also the Principals of Faith that Maimonides enumerates, and Kabbalists also refer to the 13 petalled rose, among other uses (i.e. great number). May they continue to grow and elevate themselves and may they soar to health, happiness and success with their beautiful family.
The nation of Israel has received the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. The Bible starts enumerating a long list of additional commandments. Then God gives what amounts to a pep talk to the nation of Israel, how He will send his angel ahead of them and destroy the inhabitants of Canaan, to make way for the incoming masses of Israelites.
In the midst of descriptions of enemy destruction and land conquest God states:
“You shall worship God, your God, and He shall bless your bread and your water, and I shall remove illness from your midst. There shall be no woman who loses her young or is infertile in your land; I shall fill the number of your days.” (Exodus 23:25-26)
Instead of paraphrasing or interpreting Rabbi Ovadia Sforno as usual, I’ll just quote him, as his wording is so intriguing (translation courtesy of Artscroll English Sfrono translated by Rabbi Raphael Pelcovitz – highly recommended):
“The number of your days I will fulfill: You will live to the (full) measure of oil which is in your lamp of God (the soul of man), i.e., the vitality (or natural force) rooted (in man) from birth. The reverse of this mostly occurs when man dies from (various) illnesses before his basic vitality has ceased. This occurs due to wrong choices (made in life) or due to fate (literally, ‘the order of the planets’) and the elements (literally, ‘foundations’). Now when a man’s numbers of days are fulfilled he will in most cases see children born to his children and he will be able to teach them, as it says: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9). (In this fashion) the affairs of (new) generations will be remedied in the lifetime of their elders, as we are told happened with Levi, Kehath and Amram (the ancestors of Moses).”
Sforno then directs us to earlier comments about the great-grandfather, grandfather and father of Moses, who all led exceedingly long lives.
“The longevity of these men enabled them to influence their grandsons as well as their sons. The choice fruit of these spiritual plantings were Moses and Aaron. They are the end result of the many years of education and guidance contributed by Levi, Kehath and Amram, and they are worthy to be chosen as leaders and spokesmen.”
May grandparents have the continuing opportunity to teach and guide their grandchildren, and may parents know how to get out of the way or even facilitate these special opportunities.
To my grandparents who I learned so much from and to our parents who are such a big influence on our kids (Is it harder for children to listen to the immediately preceding generation? Are we hardwired that way? Is that why Sforno attributes such importance to the grandparents guiding the grandchildren?)
After giving the Ten Commandments, God relays a whole host of commandments in bullet-like fashion, in a variety of areas.
I’ll divide them into the following four broad categories:
–Slavery and Marriage
–The Justice System
–Be Nice. Be Fair
–God: A Jealous Lover
Slavery and Marriage
Having recently freed the Jewish people from slavery and provided them with a basic foundation of commandments, God picks as the very first set of detailed commandments the need to be sensitive to slaves.
While the Torah did not ignore the highly prevalent institution of slavery, it was highly innovative in terms of giving them basic human rights and recognizing their deprived situation. “To fulfill the laws pertaining to a Jewish slave”[Commandment #42] is a broad enactment that infuses this otherwise difficult reality with dignity, care and eventual self-sufficiency for the slave involved.
Slavery for women in the Torah has an entirely different connotation. It is classically relevant for young girls, for the express purpose of leading to bona fide marriage. “For the master of a Jewish maidservant to either take her for a wife or give her to his son for a wife” [Commandment #43]defines female “slavery” as exclusively a prelude to marriage. This would typically be an arranged contract between a poor or destitute father of the bride with a wealthier perspective husband or father-in-law. The Torah however provides two specific clauses that protect and release the girl if a marriage will not be consummated.
–“For the master of a Jewish maidservant to redeem her if he or his son will not take her for a wife.” [Commandment #44]
–“The master of a Jewish maidservant cannot sell her to another man.” [Commandment #45]
As can be seen, the Jewish version of slavery, especially regarding women (who were the most exploited) is radically different than anything that existed in the ancient world, or even into modern times.
While on the topic of marriage, the Torah provides a broad command that applies to all brides: “Not to withhold food, clothing or marital relations.” [Commandment #46]
Except for this last commandment, the previous slavery-related ones do not apply in current times.
The Justice System
The following long stretch of commandments (from number 47 until 62) presumes the existence of a strong judicial system able to enforce Torah-mandated law. Many of the punishments, especially corporal and capital punishment were only used in a society where court-induced punishment would have a deterrent effect. Even when the Great Sanhedrin or Beit Din (the ancient Jewish Supreme Court) was active, they discontinued many of the harsher punishments when the feeling was that certain crimes were rampant.
There were four different execution methods for different crimes, two of which are included in this section:
–“For the Beit Din to execute by strangulation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #47]
–“Not to strike one’s father or mother.” [Commandment #48]This still applies today, though formerly was punishable by execution.
–“For the Beit Din to penalize with fines one who injures his fellow-man.” [Commandment #49]
–“For the Beit Din to execute by decapitation those who deserve it according to the Torah.” [Commandment #50]
–“For the Beit Din to judge the case of a damaging ox, whether it injured a man or damaged property.” [Commandment #51]
–“Not to eat the meat of an ox sentenced to death, even if it was properly slaughtered.” [Commandment #52]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages or injuries caused by someone who dug a pit, ditch or cave in a hazardous area.” [Commandment #53]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a thief who stole from people without their knowing.” [Commandment #54]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by someone’s domestic animal grazing or trampling.” [Commandment #55]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of damages caused by fire.” [Commandment #56]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of an unpaid guardian.” [Commandment #57]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases between a plaintiff and a defendant.” [Commandment #58]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a paid guardian.” [Commandment #59]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of the borrower of an item.” [Commandment #60]
–“For the Beit Din to judge cases of a seducer.” [Commandment #61]
–“Not to allow the practitioner of sorcery or witchcraft to live.” [Commandment #62]
This ends the judicial commandments for now. The progression is interesting, in that it starts with capital crimes, then deals with damages and injuries, theft, negligence, commercial relationships, borrowers, seducers and finally witches, which brings us back to capital punishment.
Be Nice. Be Fair
Having started the en masse redaction of commandments with sensitivity towards slaves and then development of the justice system, the Torah now addresses (commandments 63 until 85) sensitivity towards other oppressed groups – converts, widows, orphans, poor, sinners and even guilty defendants, and those that defend all of them, namely the courts and ultimately God. Most of the following commandments are considered applicable in our day and age:
–“Not to oppress a righteous convert with words.” [Commandment #63]
–“Not to wrong a righteous convert in matters of monetary value.” [Commandment #64]
–“Not to inflict suffering on any widow or orphan.” [Commandment #65]
–“To lend money to the poor of Jewry.” [Commandment #66]
–“Not to demand a borrower pay his debt when he cannot.” [Commandment #67]
–“To have no part in lending at interest.” [Commandment #68]
–“Not to curse a judge.” [Commandment #69]
–“Not to curse God.” [Commandment #70]
–“Not to curse a ruler of Israel.” [Commandment #71]
–“Not to alter the order of precedence of separating and giving tithes.” [Commandment #72]
–“To eat no animal with a mortal affliction.” [Commandment #73] – This would be directed to the poor person himself, who out of desperation would be tempted to eat from substandard meat.
–“For a judge not to hear one plaintiff when the other is not present.” [Commandment #74]
–“For the court not to accept testimony of a man of sin.” [Commandment #75]– Referring to public sinners of certain categories whose personality is considered less than trustworthy.
–“Not to impose the death penalty unless there is a majority of at least two judges who declare a guilty verdict.” [Commandment #76]
–“A judge should not merely follow the opinions of others, but should have his own clear understanding in giving a verdict.” [Commandment #77]
–“To follow the majority in laws of the Torah.” [Commandment #78]
–“Not to pity a poor man in a trial.” [Commandment #79]
–“To assist in unloading a domestic animal.” [Commandment #80]
–“For a judge not to pervert justice for a sinner because of his wickedness.” [Commandment #81]
–“For a Beit Din not to decide a guilty verdict on a capital case based on circumstantial evidence alone.” [Commandment #82]
–“For a judge to accept no bribe.” [Commandment #83]
–“To leave ownerless everything the land produces in the seventh year.” [Commandment #84]
–“To rest from work on the Sabbath”. [Commandment #85] – This is the flip side of Commandment #32: “Not to work on the Sabbath” (one prohibits working, the other commands rest). It also relates to the immediately preceding commandment of resting of the land on the seventh year, and is of greatest value to the poor.
God: A Jealous Lover
Having protected the interests of the downtrodden as well as defined in detail the relationship to and responsibilities of judges, God now defines in more detail (Commandments 86 to 94) additional specific aspects of the Jew’s relationship to God Himself. Almost like a jealous lover, God demands an exclusive worshipful relationship, gifts, visitation, and unique or even puzzling demonstrations of loyalty:
–“Not to swear in the name of an idol.” [Commandment #86]
–“To entice no one in Jewry to worship an idol.” [Commandment #87]
–“To go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple for the three festivals.” [Commandment #88]
–“Not to bring the Passover sacrifice while there is still leavened bread (chametz) in our possession.” [Commandment #89] – As perhaps the most important if not popular of the three festivals, the Torah adds some critical rules as to the Passover sacrifice.
–“The kohanim (priests) cannot leave the fats of the Passover sacrifice overnight without being burnt on the altar.” [Commandment #90]
–“To bring the first fruit that ripens on a tree (bikurim) to the Holy Temple and give it to the Kohen (priest).” [Commandment #91] – This typically coincides with the second of the three yearly pilgrimages, the summer Pentecost holiday (Shavuot).
–“To cook no meat with milk.” [Commandment #92] – There is no apparent direct link of this commandment to the others, though the meat versus milk command is declared in three different iterations in equally unexpected locations. It seems to be some general ubiquitous type of commandment that applies to our daily necessity to eat and probably defines more than almost anything else our daily and almost constant respect of God and His laws in a most practical and concrete fashion.
–“Not to make a treaty with idol worshippers.” [Commandment #93]
–“Not to settle idol worshippers in our land.” [Commandment #94]
Now that’s a set of laws
God has covered sensitivity to the weak and oppressed, established a judicial system, the interaction of the two and details as to the type of relationship He expects from the Jewish people. This is certainly a robust basis for the healthy functioning of a society. However God wants much more, and foremost is to be closer to the Jewish people.
The next set of commandments will deal with the setting up, operation and procedures whereby the Jewish people can have the closest physical connection to God – in the service of the Holy Temple.
After the miraculous escape of the Children of Israel from Egypt, Yitro, the father-in-law of Moses, sends word that he is coming to meet them at their encampment in the desert, accompanied by Tzipora, the wife of Moses, and their two sons, Gershom and Eliezer.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno wonders why Yitro needs to send word ahead. Yitro could have spared the expense and effort of sending a messenger through the desert to inform Moses of what was going to happen in any case. Yitro could have even surprised Moses with the welcome sight of the wife and children that he hadn’t seen in some time.
Sforno explains that it is simply good manners. Sending a simple messenger ahead would give Moses sufficient time to prepare for their arrival. Moses can then organize their accommodations so there wouldn’t be an embarrassing wait were they to suddenly appear.
Sforno brings as support for such etiquette the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 112a):
“Do not enter your house suddenly, even more so to your friend’s house.”
One might think that it would be permissible or even praiseworthy to check in suddenly on the goings-on in ones house. A surprise inspection can confirm that everything is truly in order and keep people on their toes. However Sforno reminds us, that in truth, sudden appearances are rude, startling, and an invasion of privacy. If it’s for inspection purposes they demonstrate a lack of trust or sensitivity.
Sforno and the Talmud don’t mean to dissuade people from making casual and unplanned visits to their friends and family. They just suggest that you call first or at the very least knock.
May we always have the capacity and enjoyment of welcoming friends and family to our homes.
To all of our friends and family who drop by our centrally located home. We love it. Keep visiting, with or without warning. Just knock.
The Jewish people have been released from the servitude of Egypt. They have begun, with God’s direction to gain independence and form an identity. Now God prepares to meet them in a pyrotechnic sound and light extravaganza, the likes of which have never been experienced before or after. At Mt. Sinai, God presents the famous Ten Commandments, which besides their global notoriety, can be considered a founding or basic set of commandments.
Beyond impressing upon the Jews His awesomeness, God commands it. “I am God, your God that took you out of Egypt”, demands believing there is a God [Commandment #25]. The flip side of belief in God is non-belief in any other divinity, hence a continuation of commandments that demonstrate ones non-belief:
–To entertain no thought that there is any other god [Commandment #26].
–To make no idol to worship [Commandment #27].
–Not to bow down and prostrate oneself to an idol [Commandment #28].
–Not to worship an idol in the accepted manner [Commandment #29].
Once we have the belief system in place, both on the positive side of believing in God and on the negative side of not believing or even remotely demonstrating acceptance or respect of false gods, we move on to the realm of action.
Perhaps the most primary aspect of action is actually speech. Here we continue demonstrating both our respect and allegiance to God, by not taking his name in vain [Commandment #30].
Next and still in the realm of speech, is consecrating what is probably the most fundamental and demonstrative exhibition of Judaism: the Sabbath and declaring it holy with words [Commandment #31].
Now that God has broached the subject of the Sabbath, the actual prohibition to work on the Sabbath follows [Commandment #32].
Once the primacy and exclusivity of God has been transmitted and the primacy of the Sabbath is in place, another fundamental commandment is pronounced – honoring ones father and mother [Commandment #33]. This completes the first “half” of the Ten Commandments (which aren’t really ten commandments but rather ten statements that incorporate more than one commandment each in some cases).
The first half of the Ten Commandments are traditionally considered those between Man and God (even honoring ones parents, as they are considered in a sense partners with God in creating their child). The second half deals with very basic concrete issues between Man and his fellow Man.
In terms of relationships between men, things don’t get more direct or basic than “Don’t kill” [Commandment #34].
Right after the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of life, is the commandment that deals with breaking the bonds of family life: “Do not commit adultery” [Commandment #35]. This is perhaps the first commandment that introduces an obvious higher ethic in interpersonal relationships.
Another primal crime that leads to the breakdown of society is the heinous “Do not kidnap” [Commandment #36]. Society is broken down, not only by violent actions, but also by a violation of speech. “To give no false testimony” [Commandment #37] reflects such an issue.
The last of the Ten Commandments gets to perhaps the root of many societal ills. “Do not covet anything belonging to one’s fellow man” [Commandment #38].
Once the pivotal Ten Commandments have been imparted, God continues with commandments that are still somewhat related, but are now perhaps more nuanced and sophisticated.
Drawing on the commandment against idol worship, God commands “To make no image of a human being, even for ornamentation” [Commandment #39].
The main religious conduit of the day was the use of the altar for sacrificial offerings. As metal was used for sculpting stone, there is an aversion to using metal on altar stones to add any images. Simple unadulterated stones needed to be used. The command is fairly strict and prohibits building an altar out of stones that have even been touched by a metal instrument [Commandment #40].
While discussing the topic of the altar, the command of not ascending the Altar by steps is introduced [Commandment #41]. A ramp had to be built. Once God has revealed Himself to the Children of Israel in all His glory a resulting humility is a consequence. Ascending via smaller footsteps on a ramp rather than by striding on stairs, which might show more of ones legs (they wore flowing robes back then), would be a more appropriate sign of modesty and humility when approaching and encountering God.
God has now laid the foundation with this set of commandments. In the following section He gets in gear with a broad, long and detailed list of a range of commandments.
While God performs awesome miracles, He apparently also balances them with as many “natural” causes as possible. This is fairly evident in the Splitting of the Sea and the subsequent drowning of the entire Egyptian Armed Forces in one of the most dramatic events in our history.
God could have simply disintegrated the entire Egyptian Army with their Cavalry and Chariots and at the same time teleported the fleeing Israelites to their destination.
Apparently God wanted everyone to sweat a bit, have time to absorb the fantastic events, and appreciate the incredible process that was occurring. God guides the ensuing military maneuvers in a fashion that would have earned the admiration of Sun-Tzu.
“And when Pharaoh sent the nation, and God did not lead them by the Philistine route, for it was close; for God said, lest the nation regret when they see war and return to Egypt. And God turned the nation on the desert route, the Suf Sea, and the Children of Israel ascended armed from the Land of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:17-18)
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno says something that may sound surprising upon first inspection. Sforno explains that God wanted to take the Jews to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah and then subsequently to the land of Israel. Sforno claims that the Suf Sea didn’t lead to either of these places.
The sole reason the Jews were led to the sea, was for the express purpose of baiting the Egyptians and drowning them in the miraculous trap God was setting for them.
Furthermore, it seems that the fastest route to the Suf Sea was actually via the Philistine route that God diverted the Jews away from.
Sforno explains that tactically, God wanted his Jewish pawns to be unaware of the pursuing Egyptians until it was too late. Apparently, the Philistine route was a well traveled road that was inhabited along its path. Once Pharaoh would have started his chase, the Jews would have gotten wind of it very quickly and in fear would have returned to Egypt and beg for a merciful return to their enslavement. God wanted his bait to be unaware of the impending attack in the radio-silence of the uninhabited desert. That way, when the Egyptian attack on the escaping Jews was imminent, the Jews would have no option of returning to their Egyptian masters.
The strategy, of course, works. The Jews with their backs to the sea, witness the charging Egyptian army. The Egyptians believe they have the frightened Jews trapped. The frightened Jews believe they are trapped and lament their having left Egypt.
The two protagonist nations are in place. God places some cloud cover to protect the Jews from immediate attack and blows a strong wind (more “natural” causes) to split the sea. The Jews take this surprising escape route and the Egyptians, once the cloud cover has been removed, follow in rapid pursuit.
The trap is sprung and the Egyptian army is annihilated.
I don’t know if Sun-Tzu was inspired by or even knew of the Biblical story, but following is a quote from his famous “Art of War”:
“The Power of Surprise”
“Generally, in a conflict,
The Straightforward will lead to engagement and
The Surprising will lead to triumph.”
“Those who are skilled in producing surprises
Are as infinitely varied as heaven and earth,
And as inexhaustible as the great rivers.”
When Moses and the Children of Israel subsequently sing the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:1-19), it’s not by chance that they praise “God, Man of War; God is His Name.” (Exodus 15:3).
May God always guide us in the tactics and strategies we need for success – even if at times we are clueless!
The Art of War is a Chinese military treatise that was written during the 6th century BC by Sun Tzu. Composed of 13 chapters, each of which is devoted to one aspect of warfare, it has long been praised as the definitive work on military strategies and tactics of its time.
The Art of War is one of the oldest and most successful books on military strategy in the world. It has had a huge influence on Eastern military thinking, business tactics, and beyond. Sun Tzu recognized the importance of positioning in strategy and that position is affected both by objective conditions in the physical environment and the subjective opinions of competitive actors in that environment. He taught that strategy was not planning in the sense of working through a to-do list, but rather that it requires quick and appropriate responses to changing conditions. Planning works in a controlled environment, but in a competitive environment, competing plans collide, creating unexpected situations.
Something About Sforno — A Short Dvar Torah on the Parsha — Bo 5769
The Inescapability of Destiny
Free will versus pre-destination is a classic Jewish paradox.
Rabbi Ovadia Sforno adds a new twist to the philosophical issue in this week’s Torah reading (Exodus 11:1):
“God said to Moses: One more plague shall I bring upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall send you forth from here. When he sends you forth, it shall be complete – he shall drive you out of here.”
Sforno comments on this verse:
“But previously he expelled just the two of you (Moses and Aharon) from just his presence. Now he will expel all of you from the entire area.”
Now Sforno’s follows with his theological gem:
“For this is the measure of righteousness of the Almighty. For when a man stubbornly refuses to do the right thing, to do the will of his Creator, he will end up doing what he ran away from, with trouble and grief, against his desire.”
After stating this startling thesis, that we will end up doing what we were meant to do, and suffer doing so if we don’t pursue it willingly, Sforno brings three very different and ominous sources to back up his thesis:
“Because you did not serve God, your God, amid gladness and goodness of heart, when everything was abundant. So you will serve your enemies whom God will send against you, in hunger and in thirst in nakedness and without anything…” (Deuteronomy 28:47-48).
Here Sforno implies the issue of servitude and not just servitude, but a happy one at that. If we will not serve God with joy, then we will serve others in unpleasant circumstances.
The second source:
“Say to them: As I live – the word of God — if I shall not do to you as you have spoken in My ears. In this wilderness shall your carcasses drop…” (Number 14:28).
God castigates the complaining Israelites in the desert after their despair from the negative report of the Spies who reconnoitered the Land of Canaan. One of the cries that came from the despairing Israelites was that God intended for them to die in the desert. God was apparently so incensed with the Israelite loss of faith, that he doomed them with the very fate they declared for themselves. Lesson: we have to watch very carefully what we say – because God might very well decide to deliver on it.
“Whoever neglects the Torah because of wealth, will ultimately neglect it in poverty.” (Tractate Avot, 4:11).
In this last and somewhat known dictum from Pirkei Avot (the Chapters of our Fathers), Sforno quotes only the negative part of the instruction. He focuses on the fact that if one is determined to be negligent in his Torah-related responsibilities he will indeed succeed in maintaining his negligence, though perhaps not in the style or comfort he wanted to continue.
Each of Sforno’s sources teaches a different lesson. However, the common thread, with which he wanted to highlight Pharoah’s fate is that a negative attitude towards ones responsibilities and relationship with God, will come back to haunt us in a most exacting and parallel way to the area of our failing.
While we may certainly exercise free will, and our destiny may be known to God, according to Sforno, the path to that destiny will depend on how wisely we use that free will.
May we figure out our personal paths and may they be as happy as possible.
To my mother, Nira Spitz, whose free will has always been harnessed to a glorious destiny. Amongst many accomplishments, 40 years ago she gave birth to a bouncing baby boy, who still tries to amuse her. Thanks for everything.
Several years ago, I put together what I thought was a really cool and interesting chart about the commandments. Everyone I showed it to was very impressed with it. I showed it to a couple of publishers. They also liked it very much, but didn’t know what to do with it: “It’s not a book” they explained.
After sitting in my drawer for a couple of years I decided to dust it off and start converting it into a book format, and slowly add a few comments to each section of the chart. Any and all input is appreciated.
Following is my initial effort which deals with the commandments of this weeks Torah reading:
Commandments Express – Independence and Identity
The very first commandment given to the fledgling Jewish nation, still in the clutches of Egyptian servitude is that of consecrating the New Moon and establishing their own independent calendar system [Commandment #4].
This is symbolic on many levels. The simplest explanation for this commandment’s prominence may be as a declaration of independence. The most direct implication of slavery, besides the obvious lack of freedom, is that time is not yours. Every second, every moment, must be accounted to one’s supervisors. God then instructs the children of Israel to make time their own. By determining and declaring the start of the new month, the Jewish people take possession of Time itself.
Having grounded the soon-to-be-freed nation in time, and with the Jews having made a metaphysical declaration of independence, the next step is a demonstration of freedom in an outright, very physical act of destructive and bloody rebellion.
The Jews are commanded to take the very animals that the Egyptians worship as Gods and slaughter them in an extremely public display of contempt, fearlessness and even superiority to their Egyptian masters [Commandment #5] – which became the Passover sacrifice.
The next series of commandments continue to deal with two different aspects of the Passover sacrifice. How to eat it [Commandments #6, 7, 8, 15, 16] and who may eat it [Commandments #13, 14, 17].
Now that the Jews have very symbolically declared freedom (God will soon do the practical emancipation), God is making two critical points.
One is that there is still the rule of law. In this case, divine law. Freedom from tyranny does not mean one can do whatever they want. Jews were freed for a purpose beyond their own ease and comfort. They were freed to serve God and become a beacon of light (whatever that entails) to the world. Serving God means following the commandments no matter how esoteric or detailed they may be.
The second point is one of definition. Who is a Jew? Who is a member of this newly identified tribe? Who can participate in this prototypical commandment? The answer is dependent on two different components. It is dependent on ones personal theological allegiance (a Jewish apostate is out), and on being circumcised (if you’re a man).
The next grouping of commandments order the consumption of Matzah on the first night of Passover [Commandment #10], but more extensively prohibits the eating, seeing or possession of any Hametz (leavened bread) throughout the entire Passover holiday [Commandments #9, 11, 12, 19, 20].
These commandments also contain a high level of symbolism. The Matzah is both to commemorate the night of Exodus, but it is also the antithesis of the fat, bloated leavened bread that we consume throughout the year.
During the celebration of our nations birth and independence, the elements of gastronomic comfort and even gluttony are spiritually poisonous to us. God is of the opinion that even seeing Hametz is harmful to a Jew during Passover.
Continuing nationhood is empty without a national memory. As such the highlight of the Passover Seder is the recounting of the Exodus [Commandment #21].
Directly connected to the Exodus, the final plague of the Death of the Egyptian firstborns, and to further highlight God’s unique relationship to Jewish people are the commandments of the firstborn [Commandments #18, 22, 23].
By all rights, apparently all firstborns should have been killed during the plague, including Jewish ones. By God actively protecting them during the plague, he in a sense “acquired” Jewish firstborns for His exclusive service. Jewish animals are also included. Typical sacrificial animals are brought as sacrifices, however for some reason the non-sacrificial donkey is included in the firstborn commandments. However, being non-sacrificial it needs to either be “swapped” for a lamb or killed if a swap is not affected.
All sacrificial commandments (and there are a lot) only apply when there is an active Temple in Jerusalem.
There is another commandment that is given after the night of Exodus but before the next series of commandments that start with the famous Ten Commandments.
The commandment is to restrict the distance one walks beyond a residential area on the Sabbath [Commandment #24].
One reason might be for practical considerations. The freed Jewish tribes were now on the march and camping in an orderly almost military-like organization. On the day of rest, God wanted to reinforce the need to stay together and the sense of community. It’s not the time for traveling or exploring beyond the boundaries. The Jewish people would need to stay close to each other in order to grow as a cohesive unit and be able to receive the next series of commandments as a unified nation.